Thanks to Cat for the beta.
Word count: 19.905
They watched him from their cover in the rocks behind the clump of pines. They’d been tracking his movement for days now, trying to come up with the best way to handle him. He had a reputation for being tough, even alone, with no backup. So they had to make this work, they would only get one shot at this; get it done right the first time because they would not get a second chance. He was that good.
The gang knew he was the right man; their information had been correct, there was no mistake. So, they studied his habits, where he went, who he went with, and, more importantly, waited for the times he was alone.
They knew when he was in town; he was often seen with the sheriff, Val Crawford. It had to be the same Val Crawford who worked the range wars with him down by the border. Chances were it was. After all, how many people could be named Val Crawford?
Nothing was ever said about kin, yet here Madrid was, living as a member of a family, and apparently, a close family. When had that happened, they wondered? Common knowledge had it that he was orphaned with the murder of his mother; there was never a mention of a father. And now, he went by the name of Lancer.
My, oh, my, how things had changed for the infamous Johnny Madrid! But the past had a way of sneaking up and smacking you right between the eyes. Guess what, Madrid? The past was here… After five long years, the time had come. Five long years of waiting, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, and now, it was at an end, and they would enjoy every second as they watched Madrid struggle to take his last breath.
Having invested five years in prison because of Madrid, the men were of a like mind, agreeing that a bit of a reward was undoubtedly in order. They did not want to end Madrid’s life too quickly; they were entitled to a bit of fun. If this one man could be the cause of the hell they had endured, he would be deserving of the torture they thought to dish out. It was payback time, and Madrid was going to pay in spades; they were going to see it through and enjoy doing it. The beatings and deprivation they had endured because of Madrid secured his fate a long time ago.
Murdoch Lancer watched his boys and, for the thousandth time, felt the pride flood through him like a refreshing wave of bubbling, white water rushing through his veins. He was proud, proud they were his and the men they’d grown to be. Coming to terms with the fact that they were such fine young men had been difficult to deal with. They’d done it without him to guide them. They reached manhood without his input, his influence, and discipline. He’d been cheated out of raising his sons.
Although the largest and most powerful rancher in the San Joaquin Valley, Murdoch had lost two wives and two sons. Even his wealth and prestige could do nothing to prevent the devastating circumstances that took away the four people most precious in his life.
And he mourned the fact he hadn’t been there for his sons, hadn’t taught them to ride a horse or to shoot a gun. No lessons on the facts of life, although he was reasonably sure his youngest had learned much on his own at a very early age and had been an ‘adept pupil’, aggressive in his ‘studies.’
But the fact remained that Murdoch had not been responsible for teaching his sons anything. Yet they’d grown into incredible, trustworthy, and honest men, men one would be proud to know and call a friend. And without Murdoch to teach them, show them or influence them, and that fact just plain hurt.
But he’d come to the conclusion that either he could let this torture him or learn to be satisfied with the situation as it was now. He had both sons back home where they belonged. Letting go of the past was sometimes easier said than done, but Murdoch Lancer was trying. He knew that looking ahead was a better option than looking back. Looking back brought pain, despair, and regrets, but forward brought a new beginning with his sons, and he decided to move forward and become the family that they should have been years before.
Murdoch came to realize their meals taken together had grown into a time to bond, a time to talk as a family, to share the events of each other’s days; it became a time of peaceful repast and unity. It was a dream, literally, come true. The stubborn, tense, and often explosive arguments had settled, replaced by pleasant conversation and productive debates. On occasion, friendly ‘agree to disagree’ opinions persisted in family discussions and decisions, yet sprinkled with much frivolity and tomfoolery.
Murdoch had discovered that both his sons had a wonderful sense of humor, and a penchant for levity, so much so, the lightheartedness, at times, was more than he could handle. Put the boys together, and there was absolutely no telling what would happen. Laughter bounced off the walls of the grand hacienda, replacing the quiet tomb-like atmosphere that had been present for over twenty-three years. The rowdy, boisterous commotion became music to Murdoch’s ears, and he thrived on it, craving it as a parched man would thirst for water after days of drought.
“Well, boys, what’s on your agendas for tomorrow?” Murdoch asked as dinner was served, and plates were filled. The food, tasty as always, served to compliment the time together, and Murdoch could not have asked for better company than his sons.
Teresa provided just the right amount of feminine balance to the all-male household. Her giggles at the shenanigans of Scott and Johnny only served as an encouragement to embellish the incidents and more fabrication to any tale recited. It wasn’t quite stretching truths but just enough for a few more laughs. And Murdoch enjoyed every second with his children. Although the boys were grown, they were still, and always would be, his children, and Teresa would ever be considered his cherished daughter.
“Well, sir, I’ve got the creek bed nearly cleared in the south pasture, so, tomorrow I can see to it that part of the herd can be moved down there. It should take most of the morning to round them up and move them in the afternoon.”
Murdoch nodded his head in agreement, happy with the progress. Turning his attention to Johnny, he waited for the update.
Passing the peas without taking any, Johnny didn’t hold back when the bowl of potatoes came around to him, and he added a large spoonful to his plate.
“Gotta finish stringin’ that section of fence in the north pasture. Should be done with it late afternoon. After that, I can fix whatever Scott messed up,” Johnny finished with a grin and quickly looked down at his food before the shock of Scott’s face would make him laugh out loud.
“Now, what do you mean ‘you can fix whatever I messed up’?” Scott said with the perfect amount of indignation as the corners of his mouth drooped in a pout.
Laughing into his napkin, Johnny continued. “Nothin’ Scott, just like ta see ya with your mouth hangin’ open, is all.” The sparkle in Johnny’s eyes was irresistible, and Murdoch found himself chuckling along with his younger son.
Dinner was the perfect mix of conversation and laughter, as the familial cohesiveness took shape and grew. Often Murdoch would sit and simply watch the deepening connection that bonded them into a solid Lancer kinship. He had wondered many times how different things would have turned out had the boys been brought up together. Scott, raised by his maternal grandfather, had every comfort money could buy. On his own since the age of ten, Johnny fought, stole, and lied to eat.
How different they were, yet both fine young men and Murdoch was proud!
A custom now, they took after-dinner drinks out onto the patio on the nights that weather permitted. All three Lancer men had fallen into the habit of watching the stars, losing themselves in personal thoughts and feelings, but mainly to simply enjoy the night and the peacefulness it provided. And there were the times that the silliness continued until Murdoch could take no more, and with muscles sore from laughter, he would bid them a good night. He went to bed happy in the thought that not only his sons were home, and they got along, but they were indeed brothers. Cradled in sweet dreams of family, Murdoch would sleep like a baby.
Johnny and Scott, on the other hand, stayed up a bit later talking as brothers will. The two main subjects of conversation being horses and women, not necessarily in that order. They highly regarded the other’s opinion, often sought the other’s point of view or advice, and never passed up the opportunity for good-natured, brotherly ribbing.
The amount of alcohol consumed determined how personal and or lascivious the level of ribbing became. Johnny won these contests hands down. He’d had much more experience with the lewd, ribald remarks from his time spent in border town saloons and cantinas in his days of Johnny Madrid, gunhawk. His ‘education’ in this subject had been extensive and much more thorough than Scott’s proper upbringing had allowed.
Scott’s time in the Cavalry was an education in the crude innuendos going beyond anything he learned in his growing years in Boston’s upper crust society. But even that had not prepared him for the lusty remarks skillfully wielded by his brother’s tongue.
Johnny could make Scott blush like a schoolgirl, and although he did think it funny, he took pity on his brother and did not resort to that advantage very often. But Scott was learning. It was taking a while, and his puritanical upbringing still limited him in his remarks, often forcing him to bite his tongue as his brother smirked at his embarrassment.
Morning always came early. The beginning of yet another day filled with exhausting work, heat, dust, and, of course, a very real chance for danger was of genuine concern. Angry cows were always an issue, with plenty of other hazards. A fall from a horse, the occasional outlaw, or an unexpected storm to blow up out of nowhere, and dozens of other circumstances with the potential for bodily harm made it essential for one to stay on their toes. So, the brothers decided to turn in and catch what sleep they could before starting the whole process all over again.
Rest was essential. Bidding each other good night, they opened the doors to their rooms when Johnny suddenly turned to his older brother. “Oh, Scott, get some sleep tanight, so ya don’t mess up too much tamorrow. I’m gonna be havin’ a long enough day without havin’ ta fix anythin’ that ya break!”
Laughing, Johnny quickly shut his door before Scott could respond.
And morning did come early. Much too early for Johnny. The years as a gunfighter had not dictated the strict routine of getting up before the sun, and sleeping until noon was a way of life. Some old habits died hard, and Johnny still struggled with that, but he rolled out of bed and took a deep breath as he scrubbed his face with his hands.
A splash of cold water over his head did the trick, and he shivered as he pulled on his clothes, remembering the old days where he would still be in bed, usually with company in the form of a sweet, young, warm, and willing saloon girl.
Once awake and dressed, Johnny descended into the kitchen, often beating Scott to the table to get his morning coffee. It was critical and a must to start his day, and once that first cup had entered his belly, he was ready for just about anything.
Maria smiled when Johnny came into her kitchen. She fussed over him, getting his breakfast as he settled at the table, doting on him while he ate. As he drank the craved brew in his cup, she set a large plate of eggs, bacon, and biscuits with honey on the table in front of him and glowed as she watched him put it all away.
Pushing away from the table after his last drink of the strong, hot coffee, he offered her his best smile in appreciation of the tasty meal. He was always polite and held the belch in check while still in the kitchen. He grabbed his hat and coat, then planted a big kiss in the middle of her forehead, and left by the back door. Once out of the house, nature took over, and the belch was turned loose in a vapor of steam.
The barn was cozy, the heat from the horses’ bodies kept it comfortable, and the barn cat could often be found curled up on the back of one of the equine hosts. The tortoiseshell colored cat roused at Johnny’s intrusion, and she opened large green eyes to watch the prowler as he interrupted her sleep. Luckily, she had not spent the night on Barranca, and Johnny left her lounging, undisturbed, with a tender scratch on her head. She settled back to drowse on Toby, purring in her contentment. Murdoch probably wouldn’t be going anywhere this morning so Maudie could continue her nap.
Saddling his golden steed, securing his rifle, and few supplies, Johnny swung onto Barranca’s back and turned him in the direction of the broken fence line in the north pasture. Stringing wire was not a favorite chore, but the north pasture was where he liked to spend time. It was a little give and take.
The air smelled of pines, the clearings were warm and filled with sun. The ground was soft with moss and grass, clumps of ferns grew in abundance, and in early summer, the columbines grew wild in great red billows covering much of the pasture. It was a place of beauty, and Johnny had spent many hours in idle appreciation, gazing at the scenery around him.
But this morning, there was work to be done, and the more he dallied about, the longer it would take. Now that he was here, he took a quick look around then started to unpack the supplies he brought and uncover the things left from yesterday.
Johnny dragged the canvas tarp from the pile of wire, new fence posts, and a keg of nails, looking carefully for ‘visitors’. More than one cowboy had got himself bitten by a snake or some other creature that had taken refuge amongst supplies covered with a tarp. The box of tools tucked safely in the pile was dry and ready to use. Unbuckling his gun belt, he hung it on the last post he’d set yesterday, keeping it close.
His work began, but soon, he couldn’t shake the feeling in his gut that told him something was not right. It set off a warning in his head. He cautiously looked around at the surrounding landscape, keeping his head down but looking out through his lashes. His vision told him nothing, but the feeling did not go away.
Barranca quietly munched the grass, appearing to be quite content and not giving any attention to a potential approaching threat. But Johnny realized that the breeze was blowing away from them, taking any warning scent away. Having learned to trust these gut feelings, he retrieved his holster, placing it within easy reach should the need arise.
The feeling was still present, but with no visual sign of trouble, Johnny picked up the spool of wire and dragged it along the fence posts buried in the ground, unrolling wire as he went. Wrapping the line around the top of the post, he pulled it taut, taking up the slack using leverage with the aid of a sturdy two-foot-long branch, pulling ever tighter to stretch it rigid. A sagging wire was a sure recipe for disaster, leaving the post to lean with no tension to hold it up, the cattle could break through to wander or be stolen.
Johnny twisted the line taut, then struggled with the nail and hammer and gave one last yank to pull out the slack. He heard the snap as the wire broke and whistled through the air with a high pitched whine. It whipped back at him as quick as lightning, not giving him any time to react and move away from the attack of brutal barbs. The wire bit savagely, sinking the hooks and embedding themselves in the hide of his left side and around his left lower arm, snagging deep, immobilizing him as knees bent and dropped him to the ground.
His shirt ripped to shreds, did not protect as the wire barbs gouged their way through his skin, and scraped against ribs. As his body went down, it pulled the wire tighter around him, slicing further through flesh as pain exploded inside him. A howl of agony echoed in the air, his legs wouldn’t support him, and the weight of his body, pulling downward, only served to secure the wire deeper into his flesh.
“SON-OF-A-BITCH!” he bellowed as he tried to even out his breathing and get his feet under him. On the ground, just out of reach, lay the wire cutters. Without those cutters, Johnny knew he would have no choice but to pull the barbs out of his skin, endure the horrific, white-hot shards lancing through him or stay as he was until help arrived. The latter was not an option, so he steeled his mind and body for self-inflicted torture.
Johnny forced himself to stand as best he could, and with right hand secured in the heavy leather glove, he took hold of the broken end of the wire and slowly pulled it out of the skin on his arm, watching as the blood streamed down his hand to drip off fingertips and puddle on the ground.
He had to stop after the third barb ripped out. He felt dizzy; the fog in his brain threatened to overpower his senses. Not able to take a deep clearing breath to chase the fog away, he wondered if he could do this, finish this gruesome task to free himself. The barbs felt like railroad spikes piercing his skin, and his side burned as if someone held a torch to his ribs. He swayed on his feet and didn’t hear anything until he heard “JOHNNY” bellowed close to his ear.
“Hey! Lookie here! Ol Johnny-Boy jus’ got himself wrapped in the wire! He’s hangin’ there like a side a beef!” Brogan laughed as he watched the struggle below. The others crowded around, waiting their turn to witness Madrid tangled in the wire.
“How long ya think he can stay strung up an’ bleedin’, Brogan?” Hayes asked, his single eye shining as the trap’s first part was successfully sprung and kindled immense excitement and anxiousness. They would finally have their revenge.
“Damn! Gonna hafta wait, boys, someone’s comin!”
“My God, Johnny! What happened?” The rest Johnny blocked out. Murdoch quickly reached for the wire cutters and clipped the strand that secured Johnny upright. With that tension gone, Johnny went to the ground like a sack of feed, Murdoch barely able to break the descent to the hard, dusty earth.
“Hold still, Johnny, I need to see where the barbs are…” With shaking hands, Murdoch Lancer snipped the wire and quickly pulled as the barbs fought to secure their claim on his son’s hide and not let go.
Johnny gasped as the metal hooks penetrated his skin, grating against bone. His cold sweat suddenly turned hot. He tried to breathe slowly, but as his father removed the vicious, deeply embedded barbs, Johnny couldn’t control the sharp intake of air and had to grit his teeth when Murdoch raised the injured arm to get at the wire that pierced his side. Picking at the shreds of Johnny’s ruined shirt, he noted the barbs had twisted, apparently when Johnny fell and pulled them under the skin.
“Johnny, these are deep, right down to the bone.” Murdoch did his best to brace his son for what was to come.
Panting, unable to catch his breath, and jaws clamped together, Johnny battled to focus and caught the gist of what his father was trying to tell him. “Jus’ do it, M-Murdoch! Jus’ do it!” he gasped, grinding his teeth to cope with the exploding pain.
Taking the pliers from the toolbox, Murdoch placed them as close to the barb as he could, pulling them, one by one, in the same direction as when they entered Johnny’s skin. The sweat rolled off Johnny’s forehead and down the sides of his face. Murdoch had them removed in rapid succession, desperately ignoring the sight of them lying in the grass, covered with his son’s blood and bits of muscle. Running to his saddlebags, he came back with bandages and a small bottle of laudanum. Every hand at Lancer was required to carry these supplies with them. One never knew when they would need it.
He raced back to Johnny’s side and pulled the tattered shirt out from the waist of his calzoneras, then wrapped him tightly with the bandages. The tears in his skin gaped open, grotesque, and oozing blood. Murdoch would send for Sam, the doctor’s services required once again for one of his sons. He wrapped Johnny’s chest and wrist, then discreetly opened the bottle of laudanum, but before he could get it to Johnny’s mouth, Johnny declined and said he didn’t need it. Shrugging, Murdoch corked the bottle.
“Yes, you do, but I’m not going to waste time arguing with you. I’ll let Sam have those honors. Come on, son; I’ll help you get on your horse, I need to get you home.” The questions would have to wait until later.
Murdoch watched as Johnny tried to fight the pain. He struggled to sit straight in the saddle and not appear as if he would catapult to the ground without his father’s help. Though still open, Johnny’s eyes were glazed, and Murdoch knew it wouldn’t be long before the pain and blood loss took their toll.
At last, they crested the hill behind Lancer; soon, the house would be a flurry of activity with Maria and Teresa, making up medicinal washes and salves and getting bandages ready for Sam when he arrived. They’d been through this many times before and knew the routine.
“Jelly, go out to the north pasture and cover the supplies where Johnny was working. I’ll have someone go out there tomorrow and finish the job,” Murdoch directed the ranch handyman.
The grumbling and grousing were all for show. Jelly, cantankerous by nature, was worried, especially where Johnny was concerned, but didn’t like to let it show. The more he complained, the more concerned he was, and all the way to the barn, Murdoch could hear the grumbles.
“Darn fool boy, how’d he get all tangled? You’d think he’d watch out for hisself more’n what he does…” And there was more, but Murdoch didn’t stay to listen. He ascended the stairs to Johnny’s room, wondering how Maria was fairing with her charge. Johnny could be a handful at the best of times.
As Murdoch came down the hall, he could hear the commotion as, again, Johnny was his obstinate self. Hope Sam gets here soon! Murdoch thought as he pushed the door open and entered the room.
Indeed, Maria did had her hands full, trying to clean the cuts and stop the bleeding. Johnny’s ruined shirt was in a pile on the floor along with soiled bandages; his boots lay where they landed, kicked off, and scattered; one was half under the bed, the other was behind the door. The bedspread and blankets turned halfway down, but Johnny was on top of them now, refusing to undress and get under covers. He looked miserable but insisted he was ‘fine’. Maria could only shake her head, and with a frown turning down the corners of her mouth, she sighed, wondering how her niño got himself injured this time.
Jelly made it to the fence line and covered the supplies and tools. Still grumbling, he looked at the wire in the grass and shuddered as he realized the dark reddish rust color was Johnny’s blood. He picked up an end of the line and looked closely; it wasn’t rusted, causing it to break. What the heck… he thought, then realized it was partially cut. Quickly he went to the last post that was strung yesterday and saw the same markings. The wire had been cut halfway through to ensure that it would snap.
“I told you we shoulda went down there right away! Now we’re gonna hafta wait ta get at him again!” Whitt Morgan complained to their leader. Hitch Brogan smiled, setting off evil glint sparking in his eyes.
“This’ll just prolong the anticipation; we can think a more things ta do with ‘im! Why, I bet that Skip can come up with more stuff seein’ as he suffered the most cuz of Madrid, can’t ya, Skip?”
Hayes grin stretched ear to ear, looking like the Devil incarnate. The black eye patch added to the maniacal appearance. “I wanna get my hands on that bastard! I wanna let him know what it feels like ta have an eye ripped out!” Skip Hayes was out for blood, Madrid’s blood, and he vowed he would get it.
“A little scratch from broken wire ain’t nuthin’ compared ta what’s gonna be happenin’ ta him, an’ by the time I’m done with him, he’s gonna beg for me ta put a bullet in his brain! We all got five years of torture ta make up for an all because of Madrid!” Skip vented, singeing the air blue with the vile threats.
Sam Jenkins had enough of the battle. Sneaking the laudanum in a small amount of water, it was down Johnny’s throat before he realized it. The look of bodily harm from his patient told of Johnny’s displeasure.
“Damn it, Sam! Ya know what that crap does ta me!” It was a healthy dose, and the drug worked quickly. In minutes, Johnny was settling down and losing the battle to stay awake.
“Yes, I do, but I need you to hold still while I stitch you back together. I have a way to go, yet, before I’m done, and you’re not up to enduring this pain. So… go to sleep!” He needn’t have said it; Johnny was fading quickly. Sam shrugged. He’ll never change…
Maria left the room with the soiled rags, including Johnny’s shirt. It could not be salvaged. Maybe she would surprise him and make a new one. The idea pleased her, and she knew Johnny would appreciate the gesture, she thought as she closed the door softly behind her.
Murdoch looked on as Sam finished sewing the torn flesh together. Some of the lacerations were deep, especially between the ribs; Johnny would be sore for a long while. It will be a challenge to keep his son still, encouraging him to take it easy and not rip out any of the threads that held him together.
Sam pulled the last stitch tight and knotted it, snipping away the long ends. Washing the needle, scissors, and hands, Sam smeared salve on the cuts and wrapped Johnny tightly with a bandage with Murdoch’s help.
“Murdoch, help me get him undressed and into bed. I’d like him to stay there for a couple of days and let the healing get a good start. Some of those lacerations are deep. The arm will be alright in a week or two. He just needs to take it easy for a while, and he’ll be fine.” Settling Johnny into bed, Murdoch straightened out the blankets, pulled them smooth, and then left his son to sleep.
“Boss, I need ta talk ta ya,” Jelly said as he entered the great room and headed for the chair opposite Murdoch’s massive desk.
Murdoch’s head came up and smiled as Jelly sat down, but his smile disappeared when he saw the look on the bewhiskered face.
“What’s wrong, Jelly? What is it?” Worry replaced the recent calm with a deep frown that creased Murdoch’s forehead.
“That wire, it didn’t just break… It was cut halfway through… Someone wanted Johnny hurt…”
Murdoch went cold inside.
Their camp was made in a deep ravine, sheltered by high walls and overhanging cliffs. It was a desolate area north of Lancer with excellent cover, water, and a back entrance should the need arise for a quick escape. It was hard to find, difficult to navigate, and no people for miles around. It was perfect for their needs.
Hitch Brogan was confident this would work to their advantage, but only if he could keep his men from becoming too impatient and ruining their chance at Madrid. The opportunity would present itself again, and they would be there to jump on it. But it did require time, and where they were long on time, and with adequate provisions, the men were short on patience.
The thought of finally capturing Johnny Madrid, to physically have him in their possession, would satisfy all of their violent and torturous wants. Madrid had cost them all five years of their lives; had it not been for Madrid, they would never have been caught and sent to prison. They would not have suffered the beatings and isolation, starvation, and deprivation. Yes, Johnny Madrid would pay for what he cost them, for five long years of hell.
Murdoch quietly opened the door to his younger son’s room. Johnny lay on his right side with only a sheet and a lightweight blanket to cover him. It was warm with the afternoon sun shining brightly through the opened windows. A slight breeze moved the air, preventing it from becoming stuffy and uncomfortable. Murdoch’s mind swirled with questions. Who would want to hurt Johnny? To his knowledge, Johnny had not been in any trouble; he was sure he would have known about it, so that left Johnny’s past coming back to haunt him. That made more sense, but Murdoch would have to wait to discuss it with him.
It was always a touchy and delicate journey maneuvering through the events of Johnny’s earlier years before coming to Lancer. The ‘talks’ usually ended with Johnny storming out of the room afterward, ending in heated arguments, and often with ugly words exchanged. But as time went by, Murdoch learned the paternal navigation of getting information from his recalcitrant son. Johnny began to learn the dynamics of family as he slowly opened up about his past. Their ‘talks’ became more civil and tolerated on both sides.
Still drugged, Johnny slept, but Murdoch knew that it wouldn’t be long before his son would wake, with a splitting and aching head, a result of lingering effects from the laudanum. He sat in the chair and watched his son sleep. The long, dark, thick lashes lay in crescents on his cheeks, setting Murdoch’s mind drifting back years to the time this grown man was a baby in this very room.
The little one had stolen Murdoch’s heart when he was born. Murdoch would often wake at night and silently come here to watch this beautiful baby boy as he slept. Sometimes he risked waking the baby, and he would pick him up to hold him, feel the gentle weight of the boy in his arms. In his sleep, Johnny would grab hold of Murdoch’s finger and wrap his tiny hand around it as if for security, an anchor, a rock of stability.
The precious hours spent in this room had melted Murdoch’s heart but would soon turn into nightmares of loneliness for his lost boy after his mother left with him in the middle of the night. Murdock did not know if Johnny was alive, where he was or if he was safe. Was he happy? Did he have food? Thoughts that he should have been safe and secure in this very room, in this hacienda with his father and a stable home, plagued Murdoch for years.
But he was here now, grown and back in this same room. Murdoch fought the urge to touch his face. Not wanting to wake him unless it was necessary, so he sat and watched, satisfied just to be near him.
It was early evening when Johnny groaned, cracked his eyes open, and slammed them shut again. The pain in his brain set off explosions, white-hot, and threatened to rip his head from his shoulders. His stomach rolled, and he fought down nausea. A cool cloth was gently draped over his eyes; it felt like heaven, soothing and calming. He would give Sam a piece of his mind when he saw him next. Sam forced the dreaded pain killer on him, and that was the reason for his headache now.
“It’s about time you woke up, brother, because I really need for you to fix what I messed up today…” Scott teased, although worried about what had happened… and why. He would keep the conversation light until Johnny was well enough to discuss it.
Trying to even out his breathing, Johnny got the nausea somewhat under control. “Yeah? What’d ya… mess up?”
Scott chuckled a bit, then took a breath and sighed. “Well, it seems like I have this brother that keeps getting into trouble and, to tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time watching out for him.”
Johnny started to laugh but bit it off as pain mushroomed through his side. “Damn, Scott, don’t make me laugh!”
Scott took the cloth from his forehead to rinse out, then replaced it. “Sorry, Johnny, I couldn’t help that remark. I promise I won’t do it again. Well, maybe tonight. Ah, how about in an hour?”
“How ‘bout I just shoot ya?” Johnny mumbled as he ran a hand through his hair, making the ends stand out in an unruly mass.
Scott laughed again. “Johnny, Maria brought up some supper. Let me help you with that.” Scott began to wedge pillows behind him as Johnny protested like the older brother knew he would. “I think if you get something in your stomach, you’re going to feel better.” And Scott’s prediction was right.
Hearing the brothers talk, Murdoch tapped on the door and pushed it open, watching as Johnny slowly drank the soup.
“I’m glad to see you awake, Johnny. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Johnny said around a bite of biscuit.
Murdoch doubted it, he could see pain lines etched on Johnny’s face, and it dulled the usually bright sparkle in his eyes. “Can you tell me what happened out there this morning?”
“Dunno. Started ta work, and the wire snapped, I guess. Don’t remember anything other than tryin’ ta get myself outta the tangle. Thanks for comin’ by when ya did, Murdoch.” Johnny was not about to tell Murdoch his gut feeling right before the wire broke.
“Johnny, I sent Jelly out there to cover the tools. He said the wire had been cut.”
Johnny was shocked; his eyes blazed, then darkened. His gut had been right.
He refused to take any medicine, much to Murdoch’s dismay. Still, when Johnny said he was tired and wanted to sleep for the night, Scott and Murdoch exchanged glances, not missed by Johnny, and after checking the bandages, making sure they didn’t need changing, they filed out of Johnny’s room to let him rest.
Once in the great room, they took their drink of choice and settled in front of the fire to talk.
“What do you think, Murdoch?” Scott asked, curious about what was going on in his father’s mind.
“I don’t know what to think! Was this a random act, or did someone know that Johnny would be out there working on the fence and want him to be injured? If it wasn’t meant to harm, why was the wire only partially cut? But I am convinced it was done to cause harm, and I want to know why. I’m just glad it wasn’t any worse. Sam said Johnny was lucky, even with all the stitches, and if he doesn’t tear any out and have to be restitched, he should be alright in a few weeks.”
Scott thought, mulling over the day’s events and could not come up with any reason for this to happen, which led to one conclusion; Johnny’s past as Madrid. But he kept that thought to himself and was reasonably sure Murdoch was of the same mind. Silently, Scott vowed to watch out for his brother once he was up and around. It couldn’t hurt.
“I don’t need ta have someone with me all day! I ain’t that bad, so just let me sit here by myself, por favor!”
Maria stepped back, her bottom lip quivered as Johnny’s head flopped against the back of the chair.
“Lo siento, Maria,” Johnny reached out to grab her hand and gently squeezed the fingers. “I’m fine, an’ just a little malhumorado (grumpy). I just need ta sit out here in the sun for a while.” Johnny spoke softly, his honeyed tones soothing, but it was his grin that brought a smile back to her round face.
She felt for fever, then moved her hand down to his cheek, and with a sweet pat, she left for the house, throwing over her shoulder that he was not to move off the patio and that she would be back with refreshments.
Johnny smiled to himself at the steady mumble he heard following as the doting woman left him. Her exasperated words murmured behind her about certain people, not knowing what is good for them and not taking care of themselves. The burble faded, and finally,he was alone, outside, and in the sun. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes, letting the warmth wash away the tensions of the last two days. Yes, he was sore, very sore, but he wouldn’t, couldn’t stay confined to his room any longer.
The sun was more healing for him than a week’s worth of bed rest. Johnny could hear Maria returning, probably carrying a tray loaded with freshly squeezed juice and warm cookies straight out of the oven. He smelled them baking earlier when he came downstairs, doing his best to avoid any confrontations on his way outside. He feigned sleep as she quietly set her burden on the small table by his chair and turned away, headed to the house.
Johnny let his mind wander. It settled on the events that brought him to this point. If the wire was intentionally cut, he wondered who had done it and why. What had alerted him to potential danger? He knew he hadn’t seen anything, and he hadn’t imagined it either. He’d learned long ago to trust his gut feelings, and they had saved his life time and again.
He did remember carefully scanning the tree line before his world exploded in a flash of white-hot pain. But there had been no indication anyone or anything was there. It was instinct, and apparently, it was correct. Had Murdoch not ridden up when he did, Johnny probably would have had an answer to the question. Until something else happened, he would have to wait to find out what it was about.
Knowing that Scott wouldn’t let him ride out alone until the incident was solved, Johnny would have to be cunning, maybe even deceitful in getting to the bottom of this mystery. He would use any scheming and secretive measures he’d learned over the years as a strategizer fighting range wars. That hard-learned knowledge might come in handy.
He knew his family only wanted to protect and help, and Johnny was grateful for that support, but the best way he knew to get answers did not allow for the limitations that his family would insist upon. He would have serious explaining to do, but his methods would bring everything into the open and produce the answers to all the questions that everyone had, most of all, himself.
He was reasonably sure of one thing at this moment, and that was, it had something to do with Madrid. No doubt Johnny would have to summon Madrid to get through this alive. But he knew he would have to meet this head-on, maybe even aggressively seek it out for it be done and over.
With these thoughts swirling in his mind, Johnny was interrupted when he heard the door open as someone came out onto the patio. Recognizing the footfalls as belonging to his father, he relaxed a bit as he knew Murdoch wouldn’t be fussing over him as Maria was wont to do. There were times when it was suffocating, but he had to keep reminding himself that it was done out of love. Get used to it, Madrid…
“Johnny? You’re looking a bit better today,” Murdoch announced as he eyed the pitcher of lemonade and plate of shortbread cookies. Picking up the treat, Murdoch sat in a chair to the side of Johnny and savored the rich buttery taste, his favorite, and munched as he secretly watched his son. The gentle breeze ruffled through Johnny’s hair, and Murdoch was taken back in time when this man was a baby, sitting on a blanket, and Murdoch watched the soft, thick curls dancing as the sporadic, light gusts rustled them about his bright, sweet head. Murdoch inhaled sharply as Johnny turned at the sound.
“Ya all right, Murdoch?” Johnny asked, suddenly alarmed.
Murdoch took a moment, dipped his head as if caught red-handed and embarrassed, then smiled at the question. A slight chuckle escaped his lips, and his eyes softened. “Yes, Johnny, I am. Watching you just now, I was taken back to when you were a baby out here on a blanket, the breeze blowing through your hair, just as it is now. It… took me back to a time when… well, it took me back.” Murdoch continued to smile.
Relived his father was alright, Johnny relaxed in his chair again and hoped to steer clear of the issue of the cut fence. He didn’t want his family to suspect he would be up to anything; they would object and not allow him to go anywhere by himself, foiling his attempt for answers. How would they ever find out what the hell was going on if they prevented him from ‘investigating’? So Johnny took the conversation in a safer direction.
“You thinkin’ about that new breedin’ stock over at Lem Carter’s? Could be just the thing that we need ta improve what we already have in our line. A bull an’ a couple dozen or so cows might come in pretty handy.”
Murdock stared at his son, his eyes tinged with suspicion. “You’ve been out here thinking about cows?” Murdoch couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and he huffed out a heavy sigh.
Uh oh, Johnny thought. He wants ta talk about it…
“Johnny, it’s a beautiful day, you don’t have to work, and you’re thinking about cows? Relax and let Maria spoil you while you have the chance!” Then he started to chuckle, and Johnny was grateful and more than a little relieved.
“Sam did say that you should take it easy for a while. Some of those cuts went down to the bone, but as long as you don’t go ripping the stitches out, you should be alright. But, when you’re up for it, I’m sure I can find some light chores for you. In the meantime, take it easy! Well, I guess I should get back to the books. Don’t eat too many cookies!”
Murdoch left Johnny and entered the house as the younger man sighed, closing his eyes, assured his intentions had not been discovered. But it would only be a matter of time before they would talk about it, and Johnny hoped he could have some answers by then.
A week later, Johnny was doing light work, much to his dismay. He didn’t feel he was pulling his weight and tried to do more. Closely monitored by everyone around him, Johnny began to feel the rope of confinement tightening, and again, he had to remind himself that it was because they cared about him.
“Brother, you just had most of those stitches taken out. If Sam and Murdoch catch you out here working like that, they’ll have my hide! Stop what you’re doing!” Scott pleaded as Johnny dropped the rope tied to the large branch that was blocking the stream. He knew he had been overdoing things, but the forced inactivity was making him crazy. In truth, he had felt some discomfort when he gave that last tug and wondered, no, he hoped that nothing had ripped open. Johnny didn’t think he could stand another lecture from anyone about taking better care of himself.
With this threat still unsolved, Johnny’s sixth sense was working on high alert, and if something happened, he would need to be ready for it. Whenever, however, he would be waiting.
Thinking back over his career as a gunfighter, he’d lost count of the number of promised claims of retaliation, warnings and outright threats, and actual attempts on his life. He could call no names to mind but would stay alert, not so much for himself, but more for his family. Johnny Madrid Lancer couldn’t live with himself if any of them were hurt, or worse, because of him, of his violent past, so he stayed vigilant.
They continued to watch him as he and another man would go out on ranch chores. Sometimes there were more than just the two men, but mostly it was only the one they waited for and his partner. It would be simple enough to detain the second man and leave him tied; after all, it was only Madrid they were after. Taking the other man out would only serve to complicate matters, more chances of getting caught, but they wouldn’t hesitate to dispose of that man if they had to. They wanted to slip in, get Madrid, and get out. And, they were prepared to wait for the opportune moment to do so.
Hitch Brogan had his hands full. The others wanted their revenge now. Even the usually quiet Whit Morgan was starting to voice his impatience about them wasting too much time, and they would be discovered if they didn’t get done what they came here to do. Sonny Logan, Tony McKay, and Leo Hunt had been quiet until the last day or two. Even they realized the amount of time they’d already spent here was only going to aid in their capture. The door was closing on their chances to even the score.
Madrid was the reason that they’d all spent time in prison, his fault they were incarcerated and tortured in that Mexican fortress. They all held a burning hatred and desire for the man to get what was coming to him. They all wanted to be the one to end his life. But it was Skip Hayes that secretly held the key, for it was Skip Hayes who cracked and betrayed his ‘friends’ for a promise of early freedom.
But that early freedom never came. His captors had lied and coerced him into informing the authorities of the others’ whereabouts that lead to their imprisonment, not Madrid. However, Hayes would take that to his grave. He would let Madrid take the blame, and after they killed Madrid, Hayes would be a free man. He, after all, had lost an eye; to his mind, he sacrificed the most.
Six men against two, those were pretty good odds. What could go wrong? So, the six men watched, made their plans, and collected as much information about where the two went and what they did and waited for the perfect moment to make their play. Madrid’s days were numbered.
“Johnny! There’s a calf behind the rocks; it’s stuck in the brambles! I’m going after it!” Scott called to his brother.
Johnny looked up to where Scott was about to enter a secluded spot in the rocks and trees. He could hear the calf bawling in distress. Looking away, he felt as if ice had flooded through his veins, the gut feeling overtook his brain, and he called desperately after Scott. The blond man turned in his saddle and looked back at Johnny with a questioning stare.
“Wait, Scott, don’t…” was as far as he got when Scott fell from his horse as a body flew through the air and crashed into him, knocking him out of the saddle. The two men landed in a heap; the assailant hit Scott on the head before he could react. Johnny’s heart skipped a beat as he drew his Colt and threw himself out of the saddle. Five men blocked his way to Scott’s side as his brother lay, unmoving, in the dirt.
“Guns on the ground. NOW, Madrid!”
Johnny’s brain frantically tried to pull up identification, six men, knowing him as Madrid, and he couldn’t come up with anything. But that could wait for now. What he needed to do was anything that would make them leave his brother alone, and he needed to come up with it fast.
With their guns on the ground and surrounded by six men, the chances were looking slim. Johnny had been in many tight spots over the years, but he didn’t have his brother to worry about then. This was a whole different story, and it didn’t look like it would provide a happy ending.
“Tie ‘im up!” The leader motioned to the man closest to him and nodded at the man directly behind Johnny. With both Scott and Johnny secured, Scott on the ground and unconscious, they Johnny shoved onto his saddle with hands behind his back and moved out. One of the men took the reins of Scott’s horse, and the seven men rode away.
“Leo, take that horse and backtrack over the trail. Wipe out the tracks when ya let that horse go, then catch up ta us. We’re goin’ back ta camp!”
Johnny, relieved he was the intended target, prayed his brother was not hurt too badly. His former skills kicked in, relying on them now to stay alive, outsmart the enemy, then get away. Although Johnny Madrid had been excellent in this situation, he had been Johnny Lancer for a couple of years. He would soon know if his abilities had diminished or if it was like riding a horse, you don’t forget some things, and he hoped his survival expertise was still as sharp as it had been before he came to Lancer. Yup, Johnny would soon find out. He began to summon Madrid and Madrid answered the call.
Johnny fervently hoped the men would spare Scott; why else would they let his brother’s horse loose to return to the ranch? He once more tried to call these men to mind, six men and one with an eye patch. They did not spark any memory. Stop wastin’ time on that an’ start thinkin’ about how you’re gonna get outta this…
They did not blindfold Johnny; that was a bad sign. That meant only one thing; these men had no intention of letting him go. Madrid would have to come up with something if he wanted to live. He rode in silence, he didn’t ask questions, and he didn’t let them get under his skin. Refusing to be baited infuriated most captors; they wanted their prisoners to beg for their lives, to be intimidated, and to grovel. And Madrid refused to surrender to those weaknesses.
For five years, they conjured visions of Johnny Madrid, famous gunhawk, sniveling and cowering at their feet. They’d dreamed of this day, and they were now savoring their long-awaited reward. Oh, how Madrid would beg!
“Hey, Madrid? How’s it feel ta be a prisoner? R’member Apache Springs? Well, time’s come for ya ta pay!” Wicked laughter rent the air, leaving Johnny wondering just who in the hell these guys were.
Yeah, Johnny remembered Apache Springs. He and Val Crawford helped to win that range war, but he didn’t remember these assholes. Johnny knew some of the opposition high tailed it into Mexico to escape. By the time any law got there, it had been over, and he and Val did strike out after the six as they fled south, hoping to catch them before they got into Mexico.
Johnny and Val stopped several miles before crossing the border and turned around. There was a price on Madrid’s head in Mexico, and catching the six wasn’t worth the risk of their own lives. Crossing the border was not an option; let the Rurales handle them now. And handle them the Rurales did, straight into a Mexican prison for nothing more than being gringos. Headed by ruthless, bloodthirsty soldiers, the men were beaten and tortured until the new regime took over and released the six men five years later.
They traveled well into the night before stopping to make camp. Dragging Johnny from Barranca’s back, they shoved him to a spot on the ground against the rocks. He’d not said a word, did not beg, and did not ask for water; this behavior was not what they expected, and it began to grate on Skip Hayes’ nerves. He wanted to hear Madrid beg so he could put a stop to it.
Johnny watched and listened. He collected what information he could, and right about now, Johnny needed all the information he could get. His captors ate a meal of bacon and beans, leaving Johnny tied and apparently, did not intend on feeding him tonight. Didn’t matter, Johnny had been hungry before and survived.
This, too, aggravated Skip after noting the look on Johnny’s face. There was no worry, no questions in his eyes, or worried stress. Maybe Skip should fix that. Coming to where Madrid sat, secured, and defenseless, Skip firmly ‘nudged’ Johnny’s left side with more force than necessary, knowing it was there the barbs from the wire had snagged. When his boot made contact with the tender skin, Johnny did his best not to show any discomfort, tried desperately not to let any weakness be known, but couldn’t hold back the groan that escaped from deep in his throat.
Satisfied, Skip sat across the fire from Johnny and gloated. But the gloat faded away quickly when he saw the look in Madrid’s eyes, and he went cold inside. He’s tied up! What can he do to me? Skip thought, but the nagging in his brain set off an alarm, and he did not look Madrid in the eyes for the remainder of the evening. None of them talked much for the rest of the night. The men turned in early; tomorrow would be the start of a big day.
He could hear them moving around and starting a fire for coffee, but he made no effort to let them know he was awake. Listening for information was his best option at the moment. From the mention of Apache Springs and the fact there were six men, Johnny thought they were the men he and Va chased into Mexico, but Johnny knew it could be then, then again, maybe not. Usually, it was revenge when these pendejos came after Madrid, brothers of men that Madrid had outdrawn or those on the losing side of range wars that had fought against him. He would have to fake sleep to pick up as much as he could. And it paid off.
“Hey, Hitch?” Tony McKay called softly in the chilly morning air. Brogan looked up from staring at the fire. The flames reflected in his eyes.
“We gonna go ta the camp taday?”
“Thought that was the idea. Long as we got Madrid now, no need ta wait,” Brogan answered quietly.
This don’t sound too good for me, gotta come up with somethin’.
Skip Hayes laughed out loud; out of the six men, Hayes had been the least patient and the most anxious to get his hands on Johnny. Skip blamed Johnny for the loss of his eye.
Brogan nodded toward their prisoner. “Wake ‘im up, Hayes,”
With his solitary eye taking on a devilish glare, Skip kicked out at Johnny’s tied feet hard enough to move both legs across the ground. Slowly, Johnny opened cold blue eyes to stare at his antagonist. If Hayes were truthful, he would admit that he’d seen an open threat, a promise for bodily harm issued from those dark hooded eyes, and he couldn’t stop the chill that crawled down his spine. Inwardly Johnny smiled. This man would be easy.
“Geddup, Madrid. We got a ways ta go ta our camp an’ I wanna get there by sundown. You two,” motioning to Whit Morgan and Sonny Logan, “take care a him,” Hayes ordered
Whit Morgan sliced through the ropes around Johnny’s ankles, then grabbed his arm, dragged him to his feet, and lead him into the bushes to see to his needs. Two pistols aimed at his back kept him in check for the time being, but that would change, Johnny promised himself. Soon they doused the campfire and saddled the horses. Once again, Johnny would not be fed. Mounted up, they left, riding north, away from Lancer.
Johnny wondered if Scott had gotten loose from the ropes that secured his arms and legs. He hoped that his brother didn’t have to spend the night tied up with no coat, no fire, and no blanket. Remmie, Scott’s horse, should have made it back to Lancer, and then they would come looking for him. The thought of his family in danger, because of Madrid, worried him more than anything else. He would try and get this settled as soon as he could. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Madrid would take his chance.
“Hey, Leo? When you tied Madrid last night, did ya check his boots for a knife?” Leo frowned, knowing that he’d failed to do this simple and customary check of their prisoner. At the pained look on Leo Hunt’s face, Hitch Brogan motioned for Skip to rein his horse around and pull up alongside Barranca.
“Watch him!” Brogan ordered Hunt as Hayes reached for Johnny’s boot. The left one was clean, but Hayes’ hand closed over a smooth handle and yanked it out of its hiding place inside the right boot. An eager eye stared at the wicked, sharp blade, and he slid Johnny’s knife into his own boot with an evil grin.
“Ain’t ever had me a knife like that b’fore!” Skip gloated.
Johnny didn’t say a word. He’d asked no questions, asked for no favors, and that continued to work on the six men. Madrid should be scared; he should at least be asking where they were going. But there was nothing. How long would it take for them to break him?
They took a break to rest the horses. Skip Hayes had been eyeing Barranca; Madrid would soon have no use for a horse. The palomino was uncommonly beautiful; he moved with grace and ease, too good for a gunhawk in Skip’s opinion. Walking over to the horse, Skip took the reins and mounted the stunning animal.
“Hey, looky here! I got me a new horse!” Then Skip set his cruel spurs to the golden hide.
A shrill, piercing whistle rent the air, and Barranca looked back at his rider as if to say “Get the fuck off of me, you pendejo!” And he started to buck with bone-jarring, stiff-legged jumps that snapped Skip’s teeth together. Within four seconds of Skip Hayes mounting the stallion, he lay face down in the dirt amid a cloud of swirling dirt. He lifted his head and spit mud. The black patch over his eye was knocked askew and covered in sand and dust. Embarrassed at Johnny’s open laughter, Skip scrambled to his feet and charged the prisoner.
Although weak and sore from the stitches that had held him together for two weeks, Johnny was on his feet in a blur. He swung a double fist that connected with Hayes’ jaw, then when Skip fell, Johnny looped his tied hands around Skip’s neck and pulled tight, cutting off the air supply. Skip’s face colored red as no air could get in or out, and reflex demanded he reach for the ropes around his throat instead of throwing a well-aimed punch to Madrid’s rib cage.
Hitch lifted his rifle and slammed the stock down on Johnny’s head before he killed Hayes. Both men dropped to the ground, but only one of them conscious. Hayes tolled away and sat stunned, holding his throat and coughed, looking with hate-filled eyes at Madrid lying motionless and bleeding.
“You best be careful around Madrid, Skip. First, ya take his knife, now ya want his horse! Hell, even the cayuse don’t like ya!” Brogan said as they all laughed. “Mount up!”
Skip Hayes and Sonny Logan wrestled Johnny’s unconscious body in the saddle and secured him, then they started out again, but not before Barranca turned his head for a quick bite of Hayes’ hand as he loaded Johnny on the horse’s back. They continued on their trail, still going straight north, further into the mountains and away from Lancer.
The afternoon progressed slowly as the terrain became increasingly difficult. The higher they went, the rockier the ground became, and the more treacherous for the horses to navigate. The trees were scrub but grew surprisingly thick in places. The rock walls formed beautiful canyons, the swirling colors of the stone deceptive of the danger there.
They made their camp just as the sun set behind the mountain peaks and turned the sky in glorious shades of purple and orange, something that Johnny usually would have appreciated were he not tied with the rope cutting into his wrists, leaving them raw and bloody. He regained consciousness and still said nothing. But he did throw a chilling look and cold smile in Skip Hayes’ direction, prompting the man to look away.
Had he been forced to tell the truth, Skip was shaken and glad that there were six of them against Madrid.
Winding their way through the maze of rocks that formed high walls and deep ravines, they came to a small clearing complete with a stream and a back entrance. Their shelter was an overhang of rock going deep into the wall, forming a wide-mouthed cave.
Johnny was pulled from the saddle and shoved to the back against the wall. He sat with head pounding mercilessly and watched as the others bedded down the horses. Whit started a fire, and McKay stood guard.
Taking note of the supplies stored over to the side, Johnny knew the men had planned on staying for a while, and he knew that he would be their guest.
With no positive identification of the men, he could only surmise they were the same he and Val chased into Mexico. They had mentioned Apache Springs. After two days, Johnny and Val returned, opting to forget the cowards, and there had been no confrontations with the other men on the opposing side afterward. Could they be the men he and Val had chased to the border? Is that where these pendejos fit in? Johnny wondered. He had a feeling he would soon find out the answers to all the questions.
He kept his eyes half closed as if in pain from a headache, which wasn’t too much of a stretch. The pounding in his skull when he regained consciousness slowly began to decrease, and the bleeding from the gash after the blow from Brogan’s rifle stopped allowing him to think more clearly. However, he put on the appearance that he was in worse shape than he was and still hampered by the whack to his head.
“Hey, Madrid, bet you’re wond’ring what yer doin’ here, huh?” Brogan was beginning to think that his prisoner didn’t care. Well, he’d just have to tell him, then let him think about what was going to happen to him. “Ya been tryin’ ta remember ‘bout Apache Springs? Do ya remember talkin’ ta the Mexican Rurales ‘bout where they could find us? Ya told ‘em where they could capture us! We all spent five years in a stinkin’ Mexican prison cuz a you! An’ now you’re gonna hafta pay up.”
Johnny watched, not saying a word, and mulled over Brogan’s words. He resisted showing any sign in his face or eyes, but he figured he’d have to take the gamble. Slowly he looked at each man, he watched each of them for a sign, a small telltale sign, and he saw one.
Johnny spoke for the first time. “So, ya think that I turned ya in, huh?” His voice so quiet, so calm that each man stood in stunned disbelief at the seemingly neutral, unconcerned tones. Brogan went rigid, but it was Hayes that exploded with venom laced words.
“We know it was you, Madrid! Ya told them filthy Mexicans where we’d be an’ we all did time cuz a you!” Hayes spat as he closed the gap between them.
Johnny turned his icy blue glare on Hayes, again, making him back away. Then he turned to Brogan. “Sorry ta disappoint ya, but after the fight, I never talked ta the Rurales. Hell, they wanted my hide, too. So, all I got ta say is, ya got the wrong man.
“Tell ya what, Brogan, you think back real hard now. Which one of these men do ya remember bein’ away from you? One of these five men told the Rurales where the rest of you were, maybe thinkin’ he’d cut a deal with them, maybe get outta goin’ ta prison. Probably got caught an’ tried ta make a deal ta save his own skin. But them Rurales, ha, they don’t hold ta their end of the bargains, so ya all got caught.” He stared directly at Brogan and did not break the contact, then Johnny smiled. “You think about it, huh?” Madrid sighed and lapsed again into silence.
Skip Hayes had to do something. If Brogan remembered that Rurales caught him before the rest of them, Brogan would know that he betrayed his friends. Skip couldn’t take that chance. “Shut up, Madrid! You turned us in an’ you’re gonna pay for what ya did ta us!”
Johnny looked over at Brogan and smiled. “Sounds kinda desperate, don’t he?” and offered Hitch another grin.
Now it was Brogan’s turn to sigh. Turning to Hayes, he eyed the man, his patience fading. “Shuddup, Hayes an’ start heatin’ up some food!”
Tonight they fed their prisoner.
Four of the six men slept while the other two stood guard over the small camp. Chances were slim to none that anyone would stumble onto this secluded area, but if that were to happen, the six men would be ready for them.
Johnny watched as the guards, Leo Hunt and Sonny Logan, sat looking into the night and listening for anything that shouldn’t be there. The snap of a twig or a night sound that wasn’t really a night sound, anything to indicate there was something out there that could spell trouble. In two hours, they would wake McKay and Hayes and switch the guard duty.
Although Johnny was sore, tired, and his head felt ready to explode from his shoulders, he knew he had to remain quiet and bide his time. Earlier, they allowed him to wash the blood from his face that dripped down onto his collar from the blow to the head Brogan gave him when he’d attacked Hayes and wrapped his hands around the man’s neck. It had dried on Johnny’s face in an itchy and flaking bothersome mess.
Madrid took his time, soaking his bandana in the fresh water of the stream and wringing it over his head. He let the fortifying water trickle through his hair, briefly relieving the ache. After seeing to his personal needs, Johnny was again tied and pushed to the back of the shallow cave as four of them settled into their bedrolls until it was time to change the guards.
He lay listening to the snores that filled the camp. His side was tender from the recent stitches, and the less than gentle ‘nudge’, courtesy of Skip Hayes he received last night. He managed to cover the discomfort, and knew if Hayes smelled a weakness, he would attack again.
Johnny wondered what was happening at Lancer. He knew they would worry, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He still found it hard to believe there were people that loved him, really cared about what happened to him. In his days of Johnny Madrid, no one cared if he lived or died. Madrid had no restrictions, no demands of him, and no regimen to follow. He was free to do as he wanted when he wanted. But as a member of the Lancer family, there were duties and conforming to specific protocols, and to a certain extent, he found it confining. Kind of like being between Heaven and Hell.
Johnny knew he didn’t want to hurt them, and now that he held a place in this family, he realized it was what he wanted, more than anything. Madrid and his way of life would forever and always be a part of who Johnny was, but Lancer was who he wanted to continue to be. Madrid would be there if and when he needed him, knowing that all he had to do was to summon Madrid to his rescue, to help in whatever way he was needed. But Johnny knew that Lancer was who he would be until he drew his last breath.
He had to do his damnedest to get out of this alive and home to Lancer. Home to the family that had come to mean so much, the family that he never thought would be possible for a man like him. He never considered himself worthy.
The sun had yet to make its appearance; the sky was still black. There was no moon out, but the stars sparkled and danced, and if Johnny didn’t know better, he would have thought that he was back at Lancer, out on the patio with his family and tequila in hand.
But he wasn’t. And he needed to think of something quick. Skip Hayes was nervous and would try something soon, Johnny knew, so he’d better come up with a plan to be ready when the opportunity broke. And it could be in the blink of an eye. The guards had changed but had given him no chance to try anything. The opportunity to escape might prove to be more difficult than he thought, but Johnny could be a patient man when he had to.
The sun rose in the sky, promising a clear and warm day. The soft yellow brightened until the sun blazed in full glory, pleasantly warming the canyon as birds filled the sky searching for food or the pure joy of flying. A hawk screamed from high above riding on the thermals, circling higher and higher until out of sight, the epitome of freedom.
As the six men ate, they all glanced at their prisoner, each with a smile on his face; evil smiles full of vengeance and hate, their eyes burning with the desire to make this man suffer as they had suffered. They murmured amongst themselves, sometimes nodding in agreement but all still wondering at the prisoner. Madrid seemed to be entirely at ease with no apprehensions about his fate. They wanted him to squirm, they wanted to see fear in his eyes, but they didn’t. Didn’t the man care that he was facing certain death? He’ll be beggin’ b’fore it’s over, thought Hayes.
The need to put Madrid in his proper place was grating in Hayes’ brain. He needed to reinforce his position in the group after yesterday’s fiasco after he was thrown from Madrid’s horse, laughed at by the rest of the gang, and having to rely on Hitch to subdue Madrid.
Skip ambled his way over to where Madrid was tied and kicked his feet. As if disturbed by a bothersome insect, Johnny slowly looked up to meet Skip’s patched face. Trying to puff himself up to appear larger than he was, Skip stood glaring down at Johnny with his one eye blazing.
“Taday’s the day, Madrid. Ya ready for it?”
Johnny shrugged and shook his head, knowing the gesture would get under Hayes’ skin. Taking a step toward Johnny, Skip began to fist his hands; he longed to pound that smart grin right off Madrid’s face!
Just a little closer, you bastardo! And Skip leaned in just far enough.
Johnny lashed out with his feet square at Hayes’ knee, kicking it against the natural bend and knocking it out from under him, forcing it backward. Hayes went down like a bag of shit and howled in pain, both hands wrapped around the knee that would not do as commanded.
Skip blindly grabbed for his gun, but Johnny was on top of him and landed a hard punch to the jaw with his tied hands. He wrestled Skip’s gun away just as Leo and Whit each grabbed an arm and pulled him from Skip’s writhing form.
Hitch Brogan knew this would not go as smoothly as they planned. He stood and came to stand before Johnny, looking at Madrid, wondering what was going on in his head. He suddenly lashing out, backhanding him across the face. With a savage kick to the ribs, he smiled in vile satisfaction as Johnny sagged between the men that held him.
Johnny felt as if his head was cracked in two; didn’t know if it was still attached, and his chest felt on fire. With eyes again closed, he tried to take inventory of his body. Staying exactly where they had thrown him, he tensed muscles to see what was injured and what would be safe to use if he had to.
He clenched his belly slowly and felt pain immediately radiate out over his ribs. That wasn’t good, and he felt his shirt sticking to his hide, knowing that the weakened mending skin ripped when the barbed wire snapped and sank its hooks under his flesh, had torn apart from the vicious kick. Hopefully, it wasn’t as bad as it felt. Fuck! Well, might as well cause as much shit as I can unless someone gets real careless real quick, ‘cause getting’ outta this alive ain’t lookin’ too good…
Knowing his belly would threaten to empty as soon as he moved, he opted to stay where he was and not let them know he was awake. Johnny could hear those about him moving around and talking; he could also hear a pained moaning and had to hold back a smile knowing that Skip Hayes was in misery.
Johnny knew a kick like that would bring down the largest of men with painful consequences, often culminating in permanent crippling. And, indeed, Skip Hayes was down for the count. The other five were trying to get Hayes to take as much whiskey as he could so they could splint the leg and get it wrapped securely. At least it would be one less man to have to deal with, and right now, Johnny needed all the odds he could get.
The water rushed over his head and rudely jarred him awake. He coughed and instantly regretted it as pain sliced like a white-hot knife through his chest. He knew he couldn’t hold back the groan that quickly turned into a retch that sent his chest and belly into a fiery eruption. He emptied his stomach of bile as it burned his throat, and now bathed in a cold sweat, he tried his best to regulate the pain.
Brogan laughed, knowing what it had cost Madrid, maybe he would be alright for them to handle after all. He turned the canteen up again, this time washing away the sweat from Johnny’s head.
His hands were tied in front of him to eat the morning meal. Johnny slowly pushed himself to a sitting position, lifting his head to look out over the little canyon and noted where the men were. Three of them held Hayes as the fourth straightened the leg as Skip bellowed in his pain. Beyond them to the left were rocks that didn’t offer any way out of the confines, but to the right was the entrance they came through last night.
The rear entrance or exit had been hard to find, but Johnny had scoped it out before he settled down for the night. To the right of the shallow cave was a trail nearly hidden behind the scrub brush. He couldn’t tell where it went; for all he knew, it would take him deeper into a place where there would be no chance for escape, but if that were the case, wouldn’t they be there now?
Hayes was not much of an issue anymore, not with them loading him full of whiskey. Now there were five that Johnny would have to deal with. He watched their actions, picking out flaws in the ways they moved, held their guns, and where they watched, how they watched. Picking out the two least threats, Johnny had his targets and bided his time, forcing his pain away, into the dark recesses, and focused on what he needed to do to gain his freedom.
“Ya know, Madrid, we could tie ya up an’ leave ya out here, only the buzzards for comp’ny. Course there’d be the rattlesnakes an’ scorpions, too, an’ if we wanted ta take the time ta hunt up an anthill, well, shit, you’d have all sorts of visitors!”
Johnny didn’t move, didn’t make any sign he heard, and Hitch Brogan wondered again what it would take to rile Madrid, make him try to escape, or at least lose his temper. But nothing was working. Madrid sat as if at ease, relaxed in his surroundings, and it made Brogan leary. They all wanted him to cower and beg for his life, but whatever they did to him, it didn’t have the effect they wanted it to have.
Suddenly Madrid spoke. Brogan jerked, not expecting anything out of him.
“Ya remember who it was, Brogan? The one that turned you all in ta the Rurales?” Johnny looked at Brogan and smiled.
Irritated, Brogan stomped away and began yelling orders at the men to hurry up and get Hayes tended to. Johnny shoved sand over the rejected contents in his stomach, then sat, trying to quell the rolling in his belly and ease the bitterness that seared his throat.
Hitch Brogan watched their prisoner. With the seed planted and germinating in his brain, he thought back to that day he and the rest had been taken into custody by the Rurales. Yeah, Hayes went to get liquor, an’ never came back. Rurales got ‘im before the rest of us. Maybe it wasn’t Madrid after all… Brogan sat back, mulling it over again; he needed to be sure. Baiting Madrid wasn’t working, and the others seemed willing to put off their revenge. It appeared that tending Hayes had taken the wind from their sails… for a while. They appeared spooked at Madrid’s behavior.
It was late in the afternoon as the sun was starting its descent behind the mountains. Hayes had finally drunk himself into a stupor and slept for the rest of the day. Tony McKay was throwing wood on the fire to heat beans and bacon. Whit Morgan and Leo Hunt were on guard duty. Johnny looked around and motioned to Brogan, and the man focused on his prisoner.
“Gotta take a piss,” Johnny said as Hitch motioned Sonny Logan over to escort Johnny back behind the rocks and bushes. Sonny pulled the pistol from out of the holster and leveled it at Johnny’s chest.
“One wrong move from you an’ it’ll be the last one ya make…” Logan hissed.
Johnny laughed. “What? An’ cheat all a them outta makin’ me pay? Ya better not shoot me, you’d hafta take my place.” He held his arms close to his side, supporting the bruised and cracked ribs, then Johnny slowly rose from his spot on the ground. He issued a groan as he got to unsteady feet. Taking the first few tentative steps, he got his feet working in sync and set out for the privacy of the rocks and brush. Once behind the cover, Johnny began to look around for anything he could use as a weapon. There was nothing. He stopped suddenly, making Sonny immediately alert for any sign of trouble.
Johnny raised his hands a bit and started panting. “Gonna be sick…” and bent over as if he were going to puke. Knowing Sonny was nervous and waiting for something to happen, Johnny had one chance. Making a double fist, he quickly spun and swung them around, catching Logan on the jaw and cheekbone. Logan’s head snapped back; the pistol fell from Logan’s hand. Johnny felt a sharp pull in his side; the pain flared as muscles snagged over cracked and splintered ribs.
Johnny heard a satisfying crack knowing that bones were broken in Logan’s face and knew this would be one less man to deal with. Sonny went down hard, crumpled in the rocks. Johnny caught him before he hit the ground and dragged him further out of sight while he tried to push the pain of his own injuries out of his mind.
Johnny searched Logan’s pockets for a knife; he had to get these ropes off his wrists. Locating his prize, he pulled it from Logan’s pocket, and Johnny opened it with his teeth, then began to saw the restraints. Luckily, the blade was sharp and quickly dispatched the line. His wrists were raw and bloodied from the coarse bindings, but that would have to wait. He took Logan’s gun belt and pistol, strapping it about his lean hips and circled out around the camp, letting the dark cover him. He could see them, but they couldn’t see him. Now the odds were turning; the hunted was now the hunter.
Brogan looked to the brush and rocks where Sonny had disappeared with his gun pointed dead center at Madrid’s back. The two should have returned to camp by now.
“Logan!” There was no answer. Hitch called louder. “LOGAN!” He jumped to his feet, issuing orders. “Find them!” Brogan with Whit, Leo, and Tony, all with pistols drawn, circled the rocks, peering into the darkness. There was no way that they could find Madrid with no moonlight, and they scattered like ants, scurrying about, frantically searching for the man that now had become the aggressor.
Johnny watched from his vantage point high in the rocks as the four men looked much like children caught doing something they knew they shouldn’t be doing. He smiled, shaking his head at their antics. He would just have to antagonize them more and make their stay here in the mountains ‘welcoming’.
All Johnny had to do was remain quiet and out of sight. There would be no way for the four men to find and subdue him, they were panicked, and they were afraid. That’s how a man got himself killed, and Johnny would use this to his advantage.
Years before coming to Lancer, Johnny lived with the Apache Indians, learning the ways of The People. After his capture and subsequent beatings, he survived and was absorbed into the tribe, proving his worth fighting, hand to hand, with rifles and knives. He’d learned to track like an Indian, and what had benefited him the most, Johnny learned desert survival. It would serve him well tonight, and the four men that raced about the rocks and scrub would now come to regret their ill-placed revenge on an innocent man.
Hitch called them back to camp. Their stumbling around in the dark had not produced anything except bruises after falling over rocks in the nonexistent light. For the rest of the night, they would all stay vigilant.
“Leo, check the horses! Morgan, an’ McKay, keep your eyes open an’ get more wood for the fire!” Hitch Brogan was a man burning with fury. He’d let this one man first disable one of his men and now escape with another man missing. When they caught Madrid again, Hitch Brogan just might end it all and blow Madrid’s brains all over this canyon.
“BROGAN! The horses, they’re gone! All of ‘em! They’re gone!” Leo stumbled back into camp out of breath, mostly from fear and not the exertion of running the short distance from the string line then back to camp.
It had been a simple move for Johnny to execute. While the men were looking for him ‘here’, Johnny moved the horses ‘there’.
Brogan raged inside; his heart was beating hard and fast, threatening to pound out of his chest “SON-OF-A-BITCH! That bastard’s gonna pay for this! First, we go ta prison because of him an’ now…”
But his thoughts stopped in his brain. Madrid’s words came back to haunt him. Which one of your men disappeared right before ya got caught? You think back real hard… Brogan’s rage-filled brain turned to Hayes; they had the right man, had him all along. What Madrid said was true; he had a traitor in his gang. And the cold hard reality came crashing down around his ears. Not only was he deceived by one of his own men, but Hitch Brogan had also just incurred the wrath of Johnny Madrid.
The night turned bitterly cold, and with the cold, the men struggled to stay awake and alert. Watching throughout the night was monotonous, fatigue was setting in, and they caught themselves dozing. They would jerk awake and glance around to see if anyone saw them sleeping at their post. The cold was a good thing for Johnny, and he sought out a most peculiar fellow conspirator, one that would ensure a successful collaboration in this battle of life and death.
Searching among the rocks in the cold night, Johnny found what he’d been searching for. Sluggish from the cold and easy to catch with the aid of a long branch, Johnny balanced the diamondback rattlesnake on the end of the limb as he silently scooted to the edge of the canyon wall. Directly below him sat one of Brogan’s men. The snake, lethargic in the chill, became increasingly agitated with his recent disturbance, writhed in growing rage, anxious to vent his anger. Johnny shook the stick as the large snake dropped down, landing around Whit Morgan’s shoulders, immediately sinking the long, deadly fangs into Whit’s neck.
Not waiting to see the outcome, Johnny hurried away from the edge and back into the safety of the dark as he listened to the strangled cries fading in the night. Shots echoed through the thin air signaling the attempt to kill the snake, which Johnny genuinely regretted, but the shots continued, and he could only hope the snake had made its way to freedom.
With Skip Hayes, Sonny Logan, and now Whit Morgan out of the equation, Johnny felt more confident with the odds. He’d been up against three before, and where it hadn’t been an easy situation to deal with, he had been successful. But Johnny didn’t have broken ribs and a recent injury then to hamper his efforts.
The snake was effective. Red Wolf had been right in his teachings, and his half-white son had been eager to learn. Another strategy Johnny had learned that was effective was to sneak into the enemy camp while they slept. The thought of the enemy in the camp, close enough to slit their throat, would play on their minds, causing them to panic and make mistakes, often leading to their demise. It was a bold move but produced terror in the minds of those victimized.
Stealing something they would miss or leaving some sign they had not been alone and, in fact, been so close to the enemy while they slept had been known to drive some men loco. So Johnny made a few more plans. He knew he’d have to finish this; he could feel himself growing weaker and knew that he didn’t have much time left to cause any significant damage. Any physical confrontation was out of the question in his present state.
The first thing Johnny did was to hide the horses in a more secure location. A man on foot was more apt to listen to reason, even an enemy. Johnny had planted the seed in Brogan’s mind about a traitor in their midst, a traitor who was willing to sacrifice an innocent man to stay free.
Madrid had seen Skip Hayes’ eye when he asked Brogan about who had been missing; it was as telling as if Hayes had raised his hand and said: “It was me! It was me!” One more incident and Johnny would leave them here, without their horses, and head out to Lancer.
Right before dawn, Johnny silently moved down the rocky canyon side. He watched the camp closely and saw the only guard still awake was Tony McKay. He appeared to be looking into the dark night; what did he think he saw? Johnny could only wonder, but it had McKay’s undivided attention, that was until he felt the cold muzzle of a pistol pressing into the back of his neck.
“Just take it real slow, drop your guns an’ put your hands behind your back,” Madrid commanded softly, and McKay complied with no argument. Johnny bound and gagged him, rendering him helpless. Taking the colt and rifle that Tony used, Johnny turned to leave but came back and leaned down, peering directly into Tony’s eyes.
“I told ya before that ya had the wrong man. Ya might wanna ask Hayes where he was when you all got taken by the Rurales. An’ somethin’ else, if I ever see any a you again, ya better be ready ta fight cuz I don’t take ta bein’ accused of somethin’ I didn’t do. So, I‘m gonna let ya off easy. Ya make one sound when I leave an’ I’ll fuckin’ blow your brains out. Ya got that, pendejo?”
Tony nodded his head, and Johnny slipped away into the darkness just as the sky tinged pink. McKay silently thanked God that Madrid had been merciful because had the situation been reversed, he knew that he wouldn’t have. He would have slit Madrid’s throat in a second.
He hurt. Where the hell was his hat? Son-of-a-bitch! Why does this happen? Why can’t everyone just let Madrid fade away? Johnny slumped in the saddle, struggling to stay awake. He knew he was safe enough from Brogan and the rest but also knew he needed help and wouldn’t be making it much further the way he was. When he got back to Lancer, he would sleep for a week. The thought of his bed brought a smile to his face. A hot bath, a big meal that Maria cooked, and his bed would make him a happy man. If he could make it until sundown, he would let himself rest until dawn. After that, he should be close to home.
The afternoon passed, and Johnny drifted in and out as he rode Barranca. He swayed dangerously in the saddle but managed to stay put. When he left the camp, he knew the others would not make it far on foot, and Johnny dropped the lead rope that led the horses and watched them scatter.
The best chances of survival for the men would be to stay where they were. They had food, water, and shelter, and if they tried to leave, they would be risking their lives, but Johnny needed them to be found as quickly as possible. He wanted Val and a posse to come and bring them in. But he had given them the chance to run. It was more than the chance they’d given him.
It was getting late, the afternoon was fading, and Johnny could go no further. He found a secluded spot in the rocks out of the wind and decided this was it for the night. His usual grace fled as he slid from the saddle, his feet hit the ground with a bone-jarring thud. Pain shot through his body, leaving him panting, eyes tightly squeezed shut, hands fisted and shaking. He leaned against Barranca for support. Not having the strength to lift the saddle from his horse, Johnny let it fall to the ground without thinking of how he would get it back on the horse in the morning. He collapsed into the grass, dragging the saddle blanket across him and glad to sleep.
The warm sun caressed his face. It brought a sense of security. Was he back at Lancer on the patio? Was he home? Long, thick lashes fluttered open, and the deep blue of his eyes took in the azure sky with thick, fluffy white clouds drifting across the expanse above him. Well, he wasn’t on the patio at Lancer, and the events of the last three days came roaring back in an ugly, ravaging flood. But he had escaped, and Barranca was with him. He would make it.
He rolled to his right, and then Johnny began the torturous attempt to get to his feet. The bruised and beaten ribs screamed in protest, and his head thundered and threatened to blow off his shoulders. The parts of his body that were not torn, bruised, or broken said: “Enough is enough.”
It took several tries to get to his feet, hanging onto the rocks for stability and then stumbled to Barranca’s side. He looked down at the saddle on the ground and almost laughed.
Barranca tensed, ears perked forward, and he snorted, making Johnny grab for his pistol. The good thing, Johnny thought, was that he saw correctly; otherwise, there would be twelve men on the hill coming toward him instead of six. Scott reached him first, leaping from the saddle before Remmie came to a stop.
“Johnny! What happened, brother?” Scott reached Johnny’s side and gently guided him over to sit on a rock. Going back to Remmie, he grabbed his canteen and, after opening it, handed it to Johnny. As his brother drank his fill, Scott took ‘inventory’. The gash on the side of Johnny’s head was recent. There was blood where Sam had laboriously sewed the wounds back together on his brother’s side, and the tight wrap of Johnny’s arm around his middle indicated there was something more than a previous injury. Murdoch, Val, Cipriano, Walt, and Joe joined Scott and dismounted, all with questions. Johnny shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs and looked at the concerned faces one by one, then he smiled and took another drink.
“Nice ta know I been missed…” Johnny quipped.
Murdoch did not see the humor. “We’ve been worried sick, Johnny! What happened to you?”
Johnny knew he’d better not stretch this out too long; Murdoch was worried. And he deserved an answer. But Johnny had always handled most things with a touch of humor. And where it helped ease the tension, he didn’t mean to make Murdoch any more distressed than he already was. The level of irritation from the Lancer patriarch would only become elevated, and Johnny hated when that happened, so he gave the answers that he could.
He looked squarely at Val. “’Member Apache Springs? Them six we followed ta the border, they got caught an’ decided they wanted revenge after gettin’ out of a Mexican prison. Thought I was responsible for them gettin’ caught. But I got away, kinda. Left them back at their camp in a ravine back aways. Took their horses so they couldn’t get very far. Le’s go. We can get back there in a coupla hours if we hurry…” Johnny started to get to his feet when Murdoch’s voice, low and authoritative, penetrated his brain.
“Oh, the only place you’re going is back to Lancer!” Murdoch reached to take Johnny’s arm, but his son pulled away.
With a defiant smile, Johnny held his father’s eyes. “Sorry, Murdoch, I got somethin’ I need ta finish. I‘m fine.” Johnny slid off the rock and moved to his saddle. Slipping his fingers through the gullet to lift, he found his hand brushed away as Scott hefted the weight for him. Adjusting the blanket then easing the heavy saddle in place, Scott cinched it tight, and Johnny nodded in appreciation.
“Johnny, I don’t think you’re in any…”
“Murdoch, I gotta do this…” The tone was quiet but filled with determination.
“Alright, but first, I’m going to take a look at that side. It ripped open from the looks of things, and you’re bleeding. It needs tending, and Lord knows what else… And then you are going to eat something!”
Murdoch proceeded to wrestle Johnny’s shirt from his shoulders and check him over. He cleaned and re-wrapped the areas where the skin had re-opened and was relieved that it wasn’t any worse than it was. He noted the deep bruising indicating damaged ribs. He desperately wanted to take Johnny back and send for Sam, but the determined look in Johnny’s eyes told that he would not allow that to happen yet. There was something that he needed to finish, and finish it he would. Murdoch knew that his son was running on guts and grit, and it would get Johnny through the ordeal that lay ahead.
After suffering through Murdoch’s ministrations, Johnny took a breath, not deep, but a breath to clear his head. He refused to make time for any nourishment; he needed to get going, now, while he was still able. Surprisingly enough, he did relent and took a sip of laudanum, just enough to dull the pain and reduce it to a throb.
“Thanks, Murdoch,” he murmured, and he struggled into the saddle with a little help from Scott. Johnny gave them all the ‘look’, and they knew he would not be denied. The men looked to Murdoch, but the Lancer patriarch only sighed and shook his head. He did understand where Johnny’s thoughts came from and, in all honesty, was very proud, albeit worried, as he watched his son’s stubborn streak overcome the urge to cave in and take the easy way out.
Johnny took off in the lead following the trail he and Barranca left yesterday. Although not terribly comfortable and not warm enough, Johnny had gotten some badly needed sleep during the night. If he had one of Maria’s breakfasts in his belly, he’d have felt like a new man… sort of.
They stopped to rest the horses. All of the men watched Johnny closely, making him feel a bit confined, but he knew he must look like shit; it was just another one of those ‘family’ things he’d have to get used to.
“Ya recognize any of ‘em, amigo? Any names?” Val asked, and handed Johnny a piece of jerky as they watered the horses.
“Uh uh. But it’s the same ones we followed when they high tailed it inta Mexico an’ the Rurales caught ‘em. They thought I turned ‘em in.” Johnny laughed as a smile grew on Val’s face.
Murdoch, however, did not think this at all humorous. He desperately wanted the Madrid persona to fade away. Anything to do with those years raised nothing but worries and dread for the old man. But as hard as it was, he tried to accept the fact that Madrid was part of his son’s past, and he did his best to understand.
“They thought you told the Rurales where they were?” Val chuckled in total amusement.
Scott looked from one to the other, not understanding as Johnny and Val sat there smiling.
“If you wouldn’t mind, could you share with the rest of us what the devil is so funny?” The exasperation in his words only served to enhance the amusement between Johnny and Val.
“Oh, nothin’ much, Scott, just that I was wanted by the Rurales more’n they were. They’d a shot me as soon as they’d seen me. I couldn’t go ta them an’ tell them nothin’. Guess ya had ta be there…” Johnny smiled as he wrapped an arm around his ribs and tried to hold back another laugh.
Scott didn’t see any humor in the close calls his brother had told him about, the number of times he’d faced death only to escape within seconds of meeting a tragic end. It left Scott cold inside as if ice grew in his belly, but Johnny would laugh it off… We really need to talk about that… Scott thought.
“Don’t know if they stayed at their hideout, but the way in is guarded, unless we hit ‘em from above,” Johnny thought about the snake and, again, sincerely hoped it had made its way out of the canyon to escape as it served a great purpose. “There were six, but they’re down ta three, maybe four dependin’ on how bad the fourth man is.”
Val smiled again, this time in proud admiration. “What’d ya do ta ‘em, amigo?” Val was openly anxious to hear about his amigo’s resourceful exploits.
Johnny’s modesty kicked in, and he glossed over facts. “Oh, nothin’ much, just got the drop on a couple of ‘em, is all.”
That is another thing we will be talking about… Scott shrugged, then he, too, smiled knowing that that would be one heck of a talk.
Scott watched his brother and saw a change come over him, two changes, actually. One was that the closer they got to the canyon where these former enemies camped and had kept Johnny prisoner, the more alert Johnny became, injuries were forgotten and pain controlled.
Secondly, the more he watched, he saw Madrid appear and claim his brother’s body, and as chilling as that was, it was also fascinating for him to see the cold, calculating gunfighter emerge. Gone was Johnny Lancer and, in his place, stood a man, a dangerous man. He was the frame of skin, muscle, and bones of his brother, but Lancer had been replaced, shoved aside in a most startlingly. The more Scott grew to know his brother, the more of an enigma Johnny Madrid Lancer was to him. There was still so much that he didn’t know about Johnny. Would he ever learn it all? No, he thought not.
They moved out, Murdoch Lancer with his two sons, Val, segundo Cipriano, and Walt and Joe, trusted ranch hands. With Johnny and Cip in the lead tracking, they soon found the spot where Johnny had released the horses he’d taken from his captors. The horses had not strayed far as enough graze and water kept them satisfied. They took the time to round them up then continued to the canyon.
Johnny looked skyward. A partial moon made its appearance, and he knew that tonight he would, again, come face to face with the men that, days before, had taken him captive. He wondered if they’d confronted Skip Hayes with the fact they now knew it was he that betrayed them. Johnny could only imagine the story he would try to conjure up in his defense, the slant to make Madrid the guilty party and take the pressure from himself. If pressed too far, Johnny knew there would be gunplay, and Hayes would probably be on the losing end of things. Another man down…
He wondered if they had found Sonny Logan. Logan was alive the last Johnny saw him after knocking him unconscious and tying him up, leaving him in the rocks not too far from their camp, but he had been injured. How severely Johnny wasn’t sure. What was it that Val said about them folks in San Jose? Know what happens when ya stand in the rain? Ya get wet…
They stopped as darkness settled, not wanting to give away their position too soon. They weren’t even sure if the men that had taken Johnny were still there, but they had to take the precautions as if they were. They secured their horses as Johnny began to skirt around to the canyon rim. A hand reached out to grab his arm.
“Just where do you think you’re going?” Murdoch’s voice was stern, a blunt reminder that he still ‘called the tune’.
Johnny held the temper that he felt quickly rising, then he softened his attitude. “Just takin’ a look, Murdoch. I spent a whole night up here like this; I know what I‘m doin’,” he said calmly.
Murdoch let go of his son’s arm. As a father, this was not easy for him, knowing his son was injured and letting him risk his life when there were enough men here to do the job. Murdoch struggled in his role as a parent of two sons. They were not children anymore but grown men. Having missed those years when his boys were younger, it was hard for him to accept there would be times such as this when they would have to take chances and risk their lives, especially where Madrid was concerned.
“It’s alright, Murdoch,” and Johnny gave him his best smile, the ‘Lancer’ smile that melted Murdoch’s heart.
He hesitated, then nodded in beleaguered understanding, and his younger son disappeared into the rocks and fading light. He’s not up to this! He’s holding that left arm tight against his body to support those ribs and insisting on going out alone into the night! Lord, let him be alright!
They waited twenty nerve-wracking, incredibly long minutes. The only one not losing patience was Val. He sat idly chewing on a blade of dried grass, arms crossed over his chest, and relaxed. The rest stared off into the dark, watching, and waiting.
When Johnny appeared, it was without warning or sound, and they were all taken off guard when he walked back where they waited. Val smiled at the reactions of the others when they physically started and grabbed for their guns.
Johnny stopped in his tracks and, in mock terror, held up a hand. “Easy there! I‘m one of the good guys, remember?” He chuckled. Neither Murdoch nor Scott thought this humorous, but Johnny overlooked the glares they issued him and began to outline his strategy.
“Only saw three of them in camp. Might be one of ‘em is out lookin’ for the horses.” Johnny had found Logan right where he’d left him. Apparently, the injuries had been life-threatening, and Logan died where Johnny had him tied. Whit Morgan was dispatched when the snake bit him, and Skip Hayes still lay wrapped in his bedroll. Hitch Brogan and Tony McKay sat by the fire.
Johnny figured out a plan on his way back to join the others. In an effort to spare Murdoch any stress, Johnny would send him, Walt, and Joe to the left of the small canyon, up into the rocks. They would be able to see some but not all of what would be transpiring in the camp, but far enough away if there were a miss-step, no one would hear it. Val, Scott, and Cipriano, all excellent shots, would go to the right, and from the same vantage point Johnny had during his night of reigning terror, they would cover him, having a clear view of what was happening and to watch his back.
Murdoch objected, and Johnny was ready for it. He didn’t think that Murdoch would completely understand, but he had to convince him that this is the way it had to be. It was the way that men in this profession handled things, not ranchers. Maybe Madrid would never be gone, but it was what Johnny had to do for himself; this is what he understood.
“Murdoch, I know ya have a hard time with this, but it’s somethin’ that has ta be. It’s the only thing that men like Brogan understand. He ain’t about ta give himself up. He’s gonna go down fightin’ an’ with you all up there coverin’ me, how can I lose? All I‘m askin’ is for ya ta trust me.”
Johnny looked square into his father’s eyes, and he saw the anguish of a parent facing the possibility of watching his son die. He knew what it was costing Murdoch, and had there been any other way to get this done, he would have gladly spared his father the torment he was feeling at that very moment.
As he stared into the deep blue eyes of his younger son, Murdoch saw the reason for his decision; it was the way of the gunfighter. It was the way these men would live, deeply ingrained, a way of life. Where he had complete faith in Johnny’s abilities as a gunfighter, his parental instincts rebelled, wanting to protect his son from any and all danger, but he saw in Johnny a plea for understanding, a request for trust. With every ounce of self-control, Murdoch reined in his protests and nodded.
Johnny smiled, and with a pat to his father’s arm, he knew Murdoch was trying. “Thanks, Murdoch. Keep your head down!” and with a chuckle, Johnny was off into the dark, and the rest moved into position. He pushed his pain away, tucked it into that place in his mind that protected him, and kept him alive.
Murdoch hunkered down to wait. How long would this drag out? He wondered. A shiver crawled down his spine as he agonized if Johnny would make it out of that small canyon alive, much less unscathed. His breaths grew short, and his heart thundered against his ribs.
Having given them the chance to find their places, Johnny casually checked his gun, the gun he’d taken from Sonny Logan. It was an alright piece, not as good as Johnny’s, which was still in Brogan’s camp, but it would suffice, hopefully. Holstering the pistol, Johnny strolled into camp as if he belonged there, and these men were waiting for his return.
“Well, ain’t this a nice surprise?” and the pistol appeared in his hand as if by magic.
Brogan jumped to his feet, making to go for his gun when Johnny sharply spoke, stopping him before his hand made it to the pistol.
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that if I were you! Boy, oh, boy, Brogan, ya got trouble now!” Johnny laughed at the expression on Hitch’s face with the shock of not only seeing Madrid again standing upright but the audacity of him marching into camp as if he owned the place.
Johnny spoke to McKay but kept eyes on Brogan. “Toss your pistol, McKay, over where I can see it an’ don’t try nothin’ stupid.” Hitch watched Madrid’s eyes, and in the light of the fire, he saw his death; he would not let Madrid take him in alive. He could not go back to prison.
McKay took his pistol, but at the last minute, he drew in a futile attempt to take Johnny out, when a barrage of gunfire thundered out of the rocks from above, forcefully blowing McKay’s body apart. Brogan stood rooted to the spot. Johnny holstered the pistol.
“Where’s Hunt, Brogan?” Johnny asked in a smooth, calm tone, much too quiet for Brogan’s liking.
“He’s got a rifle aimed at your head.” Then Hitch laughed as his hand went down thinking he’d won, but before he touched the gun, he felt himself falling, the bullet tearing through his chest, blowing his heart in two. He looked at the blood streaming down his shirt; he was already dead but didn’t know it yet. His eyes glazed as he fell forward, face-first into the sand.
Murdoch blew out the breath he’d been holding and watched Johnny, knowing he had outdrawn the man, but drinking in the sight of his son still upright as if he couldn’t get enough; he had to make sure that Johnny was alright!
Johnny calmly walked to where Skip Hayes lay under the blanket. The man was still, and in the firelight, Johnny could see he was dead. Madrid pulled the blanket aside to reveal a bullet hole in the man’s chest. Reaching down, Johnny retrieved his knife from Skip’s boot. He slipped it back in his where it belonged, then covered the body again with the blanket.
With the dead dragged out of the campsite, the seven men sat and listened to the quiet of the night. They would take turns standing guard to make sure Hunt wasn’t lurking around, but knowing it would be seven against one, they had a sneaking suspicion Hunt had taken off on foot. When daylight came, they would check around for tracks, and if that were the case, Val, Cip, Walt, and Joe would trail him, and no doubt capture him unless he had the same death wish as Brogan.
They settled in quickly, wanting Johnny to get as much sleep as possible before beginning the arduous journey back to Lancer. Hearing Johnny and Val talk about their days fighting range wars and gunfighting was one thing, but to actually see it, to watch the son and brother deal the lead and face death, was something else altogether, something that made both Murdoch and Scott shudder and fill them cold dread. They never wanted to witness it again, but knew with Johnny as part of their lives, the chances of it happening again were not out of the question, and they would be there for backup. Johnny wasn’t alone anymore. There was much in Madrid’s past. The possibility was strong it would raise its ugly head again. But they would be there for him regardless.
The stars sparkled and danced, bringing the calm that always soothed away tensions and stress. It eased the troubled soul and relaxed the tired body. The alcohol didn’t hurt either. The tequila warmed his belly and tasted unusually good tonight, probably because he knew he shouldn’t be drinking it yet.
Sam had given explicit instructions for him to follow during his recovery. Hell, it’s been two days now, Johnny thought. Not only was he not to be drinking yet, but he was also supposed to be in bed. What Sam doesn’t know won’t hurt none. Restrictions or not, it was good to be home.
Johnny’s mind began to drift, and for whatever reason, the phrase he’d thought of earlier popped into his mind. Between Heaven and Hell. And this was Heaven!
The patio door opened, and he wasn’t alone anymore. Uh oh…
“Don’t let Maria know you’re out here. She’ll probably pick you up and carry you to your room!” Scott laughed. He was happy to see Johnny on his feet, and, in all honesty, he knew his brother was feeling better.
Johnny snorted at the remark knowing what Scott said wasn’t very far from the truth. Maria did tend to be a bit over-protective. They sat in silence for a time, but Johnny felt there was something on Scott’s mind. He had been more quiet than usual since returning from their ordeal. Johnny waited until Scott was ready to ask. And before long, Scott turned, fixing his stare on his brother’s face.
“Johnny, when we were out there… you and Val… laughed,” Boston said, surprised and clearly mystified.
Johnny chuckled, hoping to lighten the mood. Scott might not understand. True, he’d seen battle, horrendous battle, but this wasn’t exactly the same. Scott was a disciplined soldier and officer. Johnny and Val fought honestly, but there were no rules; whatever got them through the fight was the only ‘rule’ they had.
To have escaped a hangman’s noose or a firing squad or lived through a range war was a reason for celebration, not to look back with fear or dread. To have come out of impossible situations was undoubtedly something that they chose to celebrate when it was over.
“Well, Boston, it’s just the way it works for us. Me an’ Val have ta let it go. Any time we came out of a fight alive, we thought about makin’ it through another battle an’ ta see another day. Life out here isn’t held in high regard, especially dealin’ with men like Brogan an’ Hayes. They didn’t have trouble with shootin’ a man in the back, so if we got the chance ta be on the winning side an’ walk away, well, that was reason ta celebrate. An’ celebrate we did.
“I know ya saw things durin’ the war you fought in, bad things that ya try ta forget.” Johnny watched as Scott closed his eyes as if to banish those memories forever. “But in order ta keep your sanity, ya hafta find somethin’ ta get ya through it. An’ me an’ Val chose ta look at it as a… let’s say a ‘gift of another day’. Look, Scott, bullets do the same thing to a man fightin’ the war you were in an’ the wars we fought. I know what ya saw was pure hell. But we’re here, now. We were able ta walk away, an’ that’s a reason ta celebrate, Boston.
“Leave the war back where it belongs an’ think on where ya are now. Ain’t nothin’ ya can do about those battles; they’re over, done. Ya paid an awful price, now walk away.”
Johnny didn’t know if Scott would understand this way of thinking, but he did his best to explain.
Boston didn’t interrupt, didn’t ask questions, but he watched Johnny as he talked and saw in his brother’s intense eyes, not only honor and honesty, but there was pride about him, too. Not boastful, just a modest satisfaction of overcoming impossible odds.
Scott felt proud, ecstatic to be a part of this man’s life, and to be his brother. He was beginning to understand. “Alright, so tell me about the other thing,” Scott said, the beginnings of a grin tugged at his mouth.
Johnny wrinkled his brow in question. “What ‘other thing’?” he asked, completely at a loss.
“The other thing you and Val were laughing about, you remember, about getting the drop on all of them.”
Johnny burst into laughter, then regretted the move as his ribs flared with a stab of pain. After getting his breathing under control, he grinned and turned to Scott. “Ya really wanna know, Boston?”
Scott returned the smile. “Yes, I want to know, all of it,” he stated firmly, not letting Johnny off the hook.
“Well, there’s an old Apache trick… Ya like snakes, Scott? Cuz this works really good!”
Written October 2017
Edited August 2020
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